During this past summer, I wrote a blog series on reading and interpreting Scripture which began with the blog Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasure. To a large extent the series was based in quotes from Patristic writers, saints of the church, modern Orthodox theologians and biblical scholars. This blog series will be another look at the Scriptures focusing on some methods and means by which the Patristic writers interpreted our Scriptures. The goal here as in the earlier series, and in the long Genesis 4-11 Commentary Blog series (God Questions His Creation), is to expand and enrich our reading of the Bible in conformity with how Orthodox teachers and saints have read the Scriptures throughout the history of the Church. Rather than a mere literal reading of the text, Orthodox Patristic teachers relied on a Christological reading of the text to open its meaning to all believers.
The great teachers of the Orthodox Church, whose writings to a large extent amount to a continuous commentary on the Scriptures saw the Bible as a great Treasure which has been given to us by God as a gift. The Treasure is kept in a beautiful chest, the written words of the Bible. The key to opening this treasure is Christ, who not only is the key, but is also the greatest Treasure Himself, as all of the riches of Scripture reveal Him to us.
If any one therefore reads the Scriptures in this manner, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a prefiguration of the new calling. For Christ is the treasure that was hidden in the field (Matt 13:44), that is, in this world—for ‘the field is the world’ (Matt 13:38). [Christ is] a treasure hidden in the scriptures, since he was signified by means of types and parables that, humanly speaking, could not be understood before the fulfillment of the things that were prophesied – in other words, before the coming of Christ…
When read, on the other hand, by Christians, [the law] is indeed a treasure hidden in a field, revealed and interpreted by the cross of Christ.” (Peter Bouteneff, BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT CHRISTIAN READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL NARRATIVES, pp 74-75)
“Chrysostom:.. ’There is a great treasure stored up in the Scriptures, concealed beneath the surface … so there is need of study so that we can learn the force hidden beneath the surface.’” (Robert Hill, READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH, pp 152-153)
The Orthodox teachers throughout the Patristic period were in fact interested in the literal meaning of the text, but they did not limit themselves to this literal meaning, which they often felt was the simplest meaning but not necessarily the most profound meaning of the text – that was a treasure that had to be sought. Additionally even when they did speak about the literal meaning of the text, they often assumed that the deeper meanings of the text were in fact what the original author inspired by the Holy Spirit meant and thus a spiritual reading of the text was a literal reading of the text.
Hugh of Rouen said, “…’by history and parables we are nourished; by allegory we grow; by morality we are perfected’… The literal meaning is the fundamental meaning: it is this that we are seeking to understand. Indeed the literal meaning of the New Testament is itself spiritual … the readings from Scripture, combined with the liturgical year which concentrates successively on different aspects of the mystery always celebrated, draw out of the mystery the wealth and variety of it signification.” (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY, pp 120-122)
“In their exegetical method, the Antiochians paid more attention to the literal and historical sense than the Alexandrians, who used an allegorical method. This does not mean that the Antiochians limited themselves to the literal meaning. They did not reject reasonable speculation and they did admit spiritual meaning of the text, beyond the literal or historical meanings. As an example, the Antiochians borrowed from the Platonic tradition the term theoria to designate the sublime sense of a text, the meaning that is not obvious from the letter; yet, unlike allegory, it takes for granted the literal meaning as well. … The Antiochians regarded the Old Testament as a preparation for the New: as a sketch is to a finished picture. This preparation implied a promise to be fulfilled. In contrast, the Alexandrians emphasized the prophesies as prefiguration, not necessarily preparation, of the new event: the future reality prefigured in the Old Testament text is already present.” (Veselin Kesich, FORMATION AND STRUGGLES: THE BIRTH OF THE CHURCH AD 33-200)
This blog series will continue to look at the Orthodox interpretation of our Scriptures, and the hermeneutics (the method of interpretation) which was employed by the Fathers of the Church.